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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Deeded land is a teaching and research laboratory for the life sciences

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Ann Libbert and Luke Maurer collect the Ebony Jewelwing, a damselfly.
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Hundreds of acres of land deeded to the University of Southern Indiana provided research opportunities for students in the 2010 Early Undergraduate Research Program, and faculty in the Pott College of Science and Engineering are pursuing a plan to protect the land for teaching and research purposes for years to come.

Two years ago, the board of directors of Southern Indiana Higher Education, Inc. (SIHE) voted to dissolve the nonprofit organization and transfer its assets, including more than 900 acres of land valued at $3 million, to the USI Foundation. SIHE was founded by a group of community leaders who saw a need for higher education in the region, raised funds, and in 1967 purchased 1,400 acres of land west of Evansville, 300 acres of which became the campus of the University of Southern Indiana.

In A Story of Leadership: Southern Indiana Higher Education, Inc., author Roberta Heiman writes that Dr. Alton Lindsey, a botany professor at Purdue University who had visited every campus in the U.S. with natural holdings, said only one campus in California had greater botanical variety than the 1,400-acre track. He cautioned then-President David L. Rice, his former student, that if Rice didn't manage the land carefully, Lindsey would "retroactively flunk him."

Heiman also notes that SIHE had famed architect Jean Labaut of Princeton University assess the property. "Labaut said he was surprised to find an area of such natural, unmolested beauty so close to Evansville. It was well-suited for a university, he said, and encouraged SIHE to buy as much land as possible."

A Pott College committee is considering the feasibility of protecting a portion of the acreage as a nature preserve, and they've enlisted the assistance of students in the Early Undergraduate Research Program in assessing its flora and fauna. The committee, appointed by Dr. Scott Gordon, dean, includes chair Dr. Jim Bandoli, professor of biology, Dr. Edie Hardcastle, associate professor of biology, Dr. Eric McCloud, associate professor of biology, Dr. Mark Krahling, associate professor of chemistry, Dr. Joe DiPietro, professor of geology, and Dr. Jim Durbin, associate professor of geology.

The committee is focusing on 740 acres south of Broadway Avenue. Bandoli, Hardcastle, and McCloud are all faculty mentors in the Early Undergraduate Research Program, and have involved those students in the work. Krahling is analyzing water quality at the site, while Durbin and DiPietro will assess the area's geological significance. They plan to present their findings at the end of summer 2011.

Bandoli said few universities have access to such a resource in close proximity to their campuses. "It opens up the possibility for students and faculty to do field research without having to travel great distances," he said. "We can actually take students there as part of a lab."

McCloud agreed the land is an invaluable resource. "You might not think of a forest, abandoned field, or blank agricultural area as a facility, but those are resources for doing research in the life sciences," he said. "One can do all kinds of research if one has the facilities to do that research."

Hardcastle received a fellowship from the USI Center for Applied Research to study the formation of a nature preserve. "We are all enthusiastic about it and think it would be a great asset for the University for many reasons," she said. "The most obvious is teaching. This fall I'll be teaching plant taxonomy, and I will have students out there using it as a teaching laboratory."

During the Early Undergraduate Research Program's eight-week summer session, Hardcastle and her students Daniel Shigley and Rebecca Reynolds worked in collaboration with Mike Homoya, a research ecologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, in identifying plant communities on the acreage. "Mike is one of the most respected botanists in the state," Shigley said. "To work with him made us feel like what we were doing was important."

It is important to identify plant communities when assessing the area to be preserved because some types of communities are rarer than others. "We found a mesic upland forest, and it's a rare habitat," Shigley said. "There are only 50 of that habitat type in the state." The other plant community present is a mesic wetland forest. Although several invasive species are present on the property, so are native species of special interest and ecological importance.

McCloud's students studied invertebrate biodiversity as environmental indicators by collecting dung beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies. "Southern Indiana has been largely ignored by the biological community," he said. "We're coming up with specimens that are county records for things that haven't been collected for five counties around. It feels good to be contributing to expanding the base of knowledge for the fauna of the state."

McCloud's student Luke Maurer was responsible for collecting the dung used to bait and sample the dung beetle population. Collecting dung was not Maurer's favorite activity, but he understood the ultimate goal. "The main point of the project is to use dung beetles as environmental indicators. The more diverse they are, the better the environment is because it can sustain more life."

The researchers are impressed with the land's biodiversity, but they have found that it's hardly pristine. McCloud said, "People tend to believe that a big patch of woods is there to be used. People drive four-wheelers over it, go hunting in it, use it as a dump, shoot machine guns, and use it for all sorts of other purposes. There was quarrying activity at one time. There's oil extraction going on there and they spill oil. This is a big forest that includes agricultural fields and roads. It is fairly dense with trails, so there are few areas that aren't showing slight to moderate evidence of past disturbance such as invasive species. The whole area was logged and the oldest trees are less than 100 years old."

The faculty mentors and their students are also examining the potential impact of the USI-Burdette Park Trail currently under construction on the land. "We're in the process of collecting as much data as we practically can on the plants, insects, amphibians, and birds that are there, and then we'll have that as baseline data to compare to what we see there after the bike trail goes in," Bandoli said.

In addition, the Indiana Department of Transportation is considering building a wetland on the acreage. "We're collecting data in that area to see what effect the wetland would have on adjacent woods," Bandoli said. "This is a huge opportunity for students in biology and other areas to see how wetlands can be developed, and perhaps do some long-term monitoring of what kind of changes that brings about in terms of plants and animals in that area."



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